With a population of just under 590,000 (equal to many counties in California), we were taken a back somewhat by the vast rolling unpopulated countryside. More Pronghorn (American antelope) live here than actual humans, and it was more than obvious. We have traveled to south eastern Wyoming in search of deer for our annual deer hunt to replenish the freezer with venison. Our normal “go-to” area in Utah was inundated by the Brian Head Fire this past summer, so southeast Wyoming it is. We have not visited nor hunted this area, which is on BLM land with pockets of private land, but they boast of trophy deer and elk. We were joined by our normal crew who actually hunted this area 2 years ago with great success. Our concern this year however is the significant die off of the deer population due to last year’s “unusually” harsh winter. We had on good “authority” however that the deer population in the area we had been drawn for were like “fleas on a dog”. Based on what we saw, I’m pretty sure this dog had a flea collar on. Talking with several other regular “local” hunters for this area and the wildlife biologist that stopped by our camp, “counts are a little low this year”, and by “counts” they mean the harvest of deer. That does not mean that the sparse sighting of deer affected our hunting trip in any way, but we sure had to work hard for what we encountered. This is big wide open country and the deer have plenty a space to roam. The trick is running into them. This trip would truly be a test of our skills. We got up to Wyoming three days ahead of the opener to ensure that the campsite we wanted was available. Unfortunately several other people had the same idea. The people that were there said we were welcome to join them, but our “Spidey senses” told us otherwise. The best and flattest place was a pasture across the “narrow” valley, inhabited by free range cattle. Once the cows were evicted, we set up. This would mean, however, that we would be hunting the other “island” mountain range, of which we were not really prepared, but we’re unconcerned as one of our friends had harvested a big buck from this area two years prior, as well. Prior to leaving home we had printed off Google Earth maps of the mountain range we thought we would be hunting, so we now had some serious exploring to do…on foot…uphill. For those of you who deer hunt, you will understand when we say that this area was extremely “deery”, with plenty of bitter brush and sage. Deer and elk poop (along with the free range cattle poop) was everywhere. Maybe this unexpected turn of events would prove successful. One problem with our campsite was that we were not really protected from the near constant “breeze”, that we back home call serious wind. Not to worry, we brought our heavy duty canopy and erected it so as to block the wind and provide some outside cover from the predicted rain and snow set for the opener of deer season. The place was crawling with hunters all currently trying to fill their elk tags in one of the best elk hunting areas in the state (we were told). ATVS and Side-by-sides zoomed by us each morning and evening heading into the mountains, as we watched and shook our heads with distain…”road hunters”. By the end of this trip however, we would be seriously coveting their motorized mounts, or “deer Uber”, as we came to call them, and would be devising a way in which to aquire one or two for ourselves for next year’s hunt. The evening of opener the wind blew fiercely and the temperature dropped to 21°! The wind buffeted our camper and it shuddered and rocked it violently from side to side. The inside of our camper was not much warmer (27°). This was perplexing as our tent, while on our many hiking adventures, has kept us at least 10° warmer than the outside, and our Alaskan camper is insulated. Ah, but wind is devilish and finds, or rather pushes, it’s way into cracks and crevices, of which we now have discovered are many. We stuffed every available unused clothing item into every space the wind was forcing it’s way in. Often times the gusts were so great that it would spit out the tightly stuffed socks that had been jammed into crevices. If we didn’t know better, we’d have thought we were on a boat in rough seas. There was nothing left to do but laugh. But wait, there’s more! We had staked down the 10’x 20′ heavy duty canopy sufficiently, but considering the unrelenting wind, Paul thought it best to check on the canopy and fasten it down with a few more stakes. Once outside, he examined the canopy. It was holding fast, so there was time to pee. No sooner did he step aside and out from underneath the canopy to pee, it lofted itself into the air, flipped over and slammed into our friend Kenny’s pop-up tent trailer. (Had Paul not stepped out and away to pee, he surely would have been hit in the head, and considering our luck, most likely would have been knocked out). Hearing the crash, I quickly dressed with additional warmth clothes and footwear and dashed out of our slightly warmer camper. The canopy had now flipped once more, having shed most of its “legs”, and rested in the clearing next to “campsite”. Paul was frantically undoing the bungie fasteners that held the canopy’s roof to the frame in hopes of “grounding” the darn thing before it attempted to take “flight” once more. Stoves and portable tables had flipped over on their sides. Chairs were scattered about and scooting slowly along the ground. Even with all the comosion, not another soul (of which there were 5 more) awoke to this comedy of wind that reminded us of a Three Stooges episode. We successfully removed the canvas roof without taking flight ourselves and stowed it away. It’s frame was twisted and bent, but that would wait till later. Chairs were collected, tables were folded and everything that could conceivably take “flight” was “grounded”. It was then that we heard, “Hey, is everything all right? Do you need some help?”. “No we got it, go back to sleep”, was our reply, wondering how the hell one sleeps through that, and secretly wishing we could sleep that soundly too. Once back inside our “igloo” we drifted in and out of sleep till the morning’s alarm announced it was time to don our Scentlock camo, load our rifles and begin our trek into the ridiculously cold (for us) and “breezey” morning in search of harvestable venison. It was 23°. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our Under Armour and Cabela’s polar wear worked as advertised, keeping us warm while we generated a bit of sweat as we picked our way up and through a “deery” canyon. Deer sign was everywhere , however none of it was “fresh”. Elk sign however, was fresh, which was not helpful considering we didn’t have an elk tag. We searched all day for fresh sign and heavily traveled game trails. We set up in perfect perches, out of the wind, watching draws and edges of meadows. We even took turns “napping” in hopes of being “caught off guard”. It was not until we “gave up” and started to head back to camp that we saw six large does on the hillside I had watched for the first 3 hours of the morning, before I had to get moving or risk my feet becoming frozen even with 1200gram Thinsulated boots (with disposable to warmers that I had mistakenly inserted and wore upsidedown for the first 2 hours). Bear in mind, it is important to learn something new each day. We watched in earnest doing our best to will antlers on each big bodied doe, and glassed the edges of the hillside for their boyfriend(s). We eventually wandered back to camp. Back at camp we all discussed what we saw. They day’s count was 9 does (turns out Brian and us saw the same 6 does), 4 Chipmunks and a squirrel…the wandering cattle don’t count. Good thing we have a week to figure this place out. The next day (Monday) started with an amazing sunrise, however the day’s hunt was more of the same, for everyone but Paul and I. In the morning we saw a total of 23 does, having borrowed our friend Kenny’s ATV, which allowed us to get higher and deeper into the wooded “island”, but not a single “bro” (spike or forky) amoungst them. On our way back to camp, as we motored down the dirt road, a large herd of Roosevelt Elk (we counted over 60, to include at least 12 “Royal” bull elk) had crossed a bit in front of us and were methodically weaving their way through the trees and up the hillside dusted with snow. With our binoculars glued to our foreheads, we poked and prodded each other (“Did you see that one?…OMG, Look at that one!…Oh, wait, check that out!…Did you see?…) We were completely mesmerized, as we watched in awe until they all finally disappeared into the trees, on the other side of the ridgeline. Lunch back at camp found our 10 lb, 13 year old Chihuahua/terrier take on a cheeky red and white hefer who apparently had been selected by her herd to see about reclaiming their pasture. Our fiesty dog, who believes he is a Doberman, was having none of that. Having fully marked his “territory”, he was intent on defending it and “protecting” his people. As we watched this cow walk purposely toward camp, our dog took it upon himself to fend off her advance. Before we knew it, our dog took off like a rocket, barking “ferociously” at the cow. The cow, who had most likely never been “attacked” by such a small thing dressed in a silver “puffy” jacket was so startled that she took off running in a serpentine manner, with our dog hot on her hooves. I now joined in the “chase”…to corral our dog. Suddenly the cow stopped in her tracks, probably thinking “This is ridiculous. What the hell am I running from?”, and lowered her enormous head to the ground. Our dog stopped as well, and to our surprise met the cow nose to nose. As they were sniffing each other and apparently getting acquainted, I caught up and swiftly scooped up our dog before the cow decided to stop him to death. We wish we would have captured this event on video, but it happened so quickly, there was no time. We didn’t know whether to punish or reward him, so we laughed. Turns out, the rest of the week, the cows never returned.
Guess who is “Large and in Charge!”
For the evening hunt we returned to the same area we had seen all the does in hopes a buck or two might wander across our path. We had no such luck. But were treated to a sky full of color.
Tuesday morning found us with the morning free of color, and bitter cold (27 ). We motored back to the previous area where we had seen the does the day before. We thought we might get lucky and have no bitter cold gusting wind to challenge us in our constant attempt(s) to stay “up wind” of our “prey”, but were sorely disappointed. We spied a few does and stalked them in hopes of catching their “boyfriend(s)” attempting to make a “booty call”. They “winded” us pretty quickly as the winds at the top of the plateau constantly changed direction on us, making it near impossible to be “sneaky”. We did however get pretty good at locating white butted boulders and tangles of tree limbs that mimicked antlers, and orange clad hunters set up in the distance at the edges of our binocular’s strength. Mid-day found us back at camp with no one else having any success as well. We all found it odd how very few shots we had heard over the past few days, and wondered aloud, “What happened to all the deer that are supposed to be here?” The evening hunt found us on foot, so we decided to “road hunt”, pedestrian style. We walked along the dirt road that we had driven the ATV over the last two days glassing the hillsides on either side of us as we walked. A little over an hour before sunset, we decided we had walked “far enough”.
Paul pulled out his sit pad, and I set up my Big Agnes Helinox chair, and plopped ourselves on the side of the road and began to watch the hillsides before us, and “range” the distance of possible shots. Once again the only mammals we saw were hunters…in ATVs, that actually didn’t see us until they were almost upon us, as they too were so intent on scanning the hillsides. As the sun set and the evening chill began to increase, we walked ourselves warm back to camp…deerless. We had decided that we were going to take the next morning off, as we were going to break camp and move across the way to our originally planned hunting area. Half the group had to leave after that morning’s hunt anyways, so sleeping in and a hearty breakfast sounded pretty good.
After our farewells, we moved with our friends Brian and Jody (of Mt. Whitney Magnificent 7 fame) to the “other side”.
We were pleased to find that the incessant wind was “miniscule” compared to what we had endured the previous days. Not necessarily confident we would see anything but new scenery, we took off on an exploratory evening hunt. We walked an ATV trail into a marvelous canyon, absent any wind. The canyons were narrow but huntable. What a treat! Surely we would see some deer. Maybe even a buck! And low and behold, as we were making our way back toward camp, a buck we did see. His massive white butt literally glowed as he made his way up a steep incline, initially a mere 150 yards away. With the plain eye you could see he was at minimum a 4×4 with 2 inch beams and thick tines. The buck was obviously aware of our presence, and was intently moving up and away from us at a brisk pace. He obviously had seen this movie before. Paul scurried forward of me to improve his angle and then quickly dropped to one knee. I marveled at the buck through my binoculars, realizing that this was the biggest buck I have seen, save Saturday morning hunting shows. But before Paul could get a “proper” shot off, this monster buck of a lifetime calmly walk over the top of the ridge’s rocky saddle and out of view. Had we bagged this bad boy, we surely would have packed up and gone home, as this guy would have provided more than an enough meat for the freezer and most definitely knocked my current mule deer “trophy mount” off the wall in our living room. The walk back to camp and a good portion of the evening was cased in silence.
The next morning Brian and Jody had to get on the road, and as Jody had been graciously keeping an eye on our dog whilst we hunted, we didn’t feel comfortable leaving our tender morsel of a dog alone at camp to whine during our absence, thus, we divided the remaining morning and evening hunts between us. Paul took the mornings, and I took the evenings. Just after Brian and Jody had left, I heard two shots separated by 10-15 seconds. I wondered if Paul had found his mark. Our ability to communicate was challenging to say the least. Our radios did not cover in the deep canyons to camp, but oddly enough we had 4G cell service once we left camp. The plan was: if a shot was heard; it was “check-in time”; or you hadn’t arrived back at camp within an hour of stated ETA back to camp, we would walk out to the road (200 yards) and first attempt with the radio, then make a phone call, and then text a message to the Delorme InReach SE we carried while hunting. I walked out to the road and stood in the freezer blast wind. Paul was able to reply via radio that he had indeed shot (twice), but it was a long shot with a nasty cross-wind atop a rocky ridge. He had set up “perfectly” and was in “comfortable” shooting range, with the buck still unaware of his presence. In his quest to get the full “sneak” of the buck, he had “spooked” some does who were still “bedded down” for the morning. The stupid does then proceeded to fast walk down the face of the hill he was setting up on, into the ravine, and then marched up the face of the hill and toward where the buck was calmly feeding. This alerted the buck that something was “a-foot”. With no time to spare, and a near gale force wind in his face, Paul fired off the first shot. Boom! Miss. Readjust. Boom! And just like that, the buck annoyed by the approaching doe (having no clue that he had been shot at…twice) calmly walked up and over the ridge he had been feeding on, completely out of sight. Thusly, no deer for the freezer. Time for lunch. My evening hunt was uneventful, with the exception of 5 doe and an awesome view.
Friday morning found it bitter cold and windier that it had ever been. It was gusting upwards to 30+mph, but just like you miss every shot you don’t take, you can’t see deer from inside the camper. Out into the ridiculously windy and cold morning Paul trudged while I and our dog burrowed deeper into our down sleeping bag. It was a short hunt, as Paul returned fairly quickly having crawled up and over just about every ridgeline there was, seeking out that monster buck we had seen two days prior. When evening hunt time came, I almost decided not to go, as a storm was obviously blowing in, and the realization that even if I saw a buck, the wind would make any shot near impossible. But again, you can’t see deer from inside the camper, and having eaten more than a “healthy” share of mini candy bars (out of boredom), I figured I should at least walk off those useless calories. I wandered through the ATV canyon, and to the border of where BLM land met private land. The wind was blowing so fiercely through the canyon that I had to lean sharply into the wind to even be able to make forward progress.
I found a lone boulder behind which to “hide” before deeming my outing, ridiculousness. I called Paul at our appointed time and relayed where I was sitting and that I was going to start walking back into camp no later than 5 pm as it was too windy. At 5 pm, I stepped out from my wind-blocking boulder and began to push my way back toward camp, still scanning the hillsides of course. And what to my wandering eyes does appear, but a decent bodied young buck with a narrow 3×4, if not a 4×4 basket, feeding broadside on the hillside of another steep canyon. I range him at 356 yards. Way too far in this wind. I consider just continuing my walk back to camp and telling Paul I saw a buck. But then I figured, he’ll ask why I didn’t attempt to take a shot. Not wanting to have that conversation, I picked my way around the opposite hillside and climbed up the steep, loose rock incline on all fours nearly 75 yards before poking my head around a stocky juniper bush to hopefully relocate him. Miraculously he was still there. I ranged him again. He was still standing broadside and was now at 239 yards with a cross-wind. Do-able, I thought. Not probable, but then nothing ventured, nothing gained. Just as I am “dialing him in” and readying for my shot, the bastard decides to turn around and walk down behind a short stand of pine trees. From here, he pokes his head out through a stand of dead branches, and now seemingly stares directly at me. I return the stare and I consider taking a head shot, but then that defeats the purpose of shooting a “trophy” buck. This was turning into a stand-off, of which he would surely win by waining light default. Time to move again. Back behind the hillside and another session of crawling on all fours up the steep incline (quietly) I have closed the distance and have him at an “easy” 151 yards regardless of the wind, but he’s still behind the dead branches and I’m losing daylight fast. With nothing left to lose I stand up, shoulder my rifle and yell, Hey! He breaks from his “cover” and attempts to escape by running up the narrow hollow of the canyon, and to his left over a saddle. The wind is blowing left to right at a steady 15 mph. With my rifle shouldered, I follow his path and as he makes that turn to the left, I pull the trigger and follow through to my left as if I were shooting a duck or pheasant on the fly. I see that he “skips” a bit, but continues to climb quickly up and through the saddle. Not even sure that I even nicked him, I range the shot at 215 yards. Considering his little “skip”, I am now curious and excited that I may have hit the darn thing. However, I would prefer to have completely missed than to merely wound the tastey animal. In the growing darkness I work my way up to the saddle, figuring that at least it is in the general direction of camp. I am amazed that I am not winded and attribute it to a recent healthy dose of adrenaline. I notice two things. (1.) It is NOT windy, but dead calm. And (2.) BLOOD! Lot’s of it! He must of stopped here to figure out what had happened to him, and to go through his options.
While here, I try to get Paul on the radio. No answer. I call his phone. No answer. I text on the Delorme to make sure I’ve covered all the bases. It is here, or more appropriately where I had shot from, that I should have sat down and ate a Snickers bar and let the buck lie down and bleed out somewhere down the blood trail. Alas, that was not possible. For as soon as I finished making my notification attempts, rain began to fall softly and intermittently. “NO! NO! This can’t be happening!”, I yell out loud, and immediately take to following the blood trail. At first it is easy to follow, thinking, surely he will be fallen over dead soon, as I meticulously mark each significant stain of blood with reflective orange tape on nearby bushes or branches. In the midst of tracking this animal, Paul finally reaches me on the radio. I tell him I shot a buck and am in the process of tracking him. Paul is excited and asks where I am. I tell him that I think I’m heading toward “Cross Hill”. “You know or you think?”, is Paul’s terse reply. “I think. Does it matter? I’m tracking the blood trail. It’s starting to rain on me.” Having not been able to reach me past my appointed ETA back to camp, Paul had obviously become more than a little concerned, seeing as earlier in the week I had taken a hard fall Tuesday evening as we bushwacked our way back to camp, which required me to re-sight my rifle and assess the operability of my left knee. Paul having the cooler head, not consumed with “buck fever”, realized that if I weren’t hurt, I could quickly become lost (and possibly injured), if we (I) don’t figure out where exactly I am. The sky is inky black and ravenously gobbles up the light of my headlamp as I waive it back and forth atop a ridge I think I’m on, for Paul to see. He mistakes another hunter’s headlamp moving away from the area he, and I, think I’m in. Mine, nor Paul’s light is visible to either of us. Absent my headlamp, there is no glimmer of light, on the horizon or even above me. At this point, I’m actually pissed that I have to take the time to figure out exactly where I am instead of following this deer. Up to this point I have marked the trail with orange reflective tape, and am confident I can retrace my path to camp from the original pool of blood. I neglect to convey that to Paul. I am conflicted and frankly annoyed. Rain is falling softly again. And it’s suddenly gotten very cold. Shit! It seems that the darkness has become even “thicker”…if that’s even possible. Cold reality, and reason finally takes over. Paul’s insistence breaks through and I remember that Brian had lent me his portable GPS mapping device, and I had it in my pocket. From the tracking arrow, it showed I was not even near “Cross Hill”, but traversing a hill parallel to the ATV trail. I relay to Paul where I am. I follow a bit more of the blood trail and then lose it. I retrace my steps back to where I last saw it, and realize that if we’re going to find this deer before this fully storm sets in, I need another set of eyes. I mark the last blood spot located with a bright green glow stick (whose color turns out to be a bad idea) and bust my way down a finger ravine that runs into the ATV trail. The GPS unit now indicates “low battery”. What?! No! Paul meets me on the ATV trail and we go about retracing my track back to the glow stick. Sadly, I don’t have my glasses, so it is hard to read and orient to the track on the small screen.(It truly sucks getting older!) I touch the screen repeatedly trying to keep the screen lit and enlarge my view. I can’t help but notice that the rain has now turned to snow, as it lands on the screen and obscures my view. NO! I wipe the snow off the screen, and have now managed to completely restart my track, thus wiping out any chance of accurately finding our way back up the hill in the absolute suffocating darkness, to my “last seen” marker. Could it get any worse?! By the grace of God, Paul locates a fresh blood track, which is actually consistent with the route this deer was taking…downhill. We follow the track. It leads to, and down the ATV trail, which also leads to water (a usual route for “wounded” animals). It is fresh, but sparse which does not make sense. Giant flakes of snow are now falling with vigor, and soon masks any and all traces of blood. We can smell the distinctive smell of deer, but it’s way too dark, there is a stiff “breeze” and the underbrush is too thick to pinpoint where the smell is actually generating from. With the ground fully blanketed in snow, we tie orange reflective ribbon at our last seen “fresh” blood, and head back to camp with hopes of finding him in the morning, for surely he has bled out by now. Considering the current temperature, he’ll keep through the night, we surmise.
We arise early the next morning, so as to beat any ATV’ers down the trail, in the event there is any blood trail to follow. We get to our “last seen” marker and search in vain for more blood. We are in luck, as the snow did not “stick” and has mostly melted.
With that, we find a faint trail that appears to continue down the ATV trail, but we can not be sure it is blood until we find rocks in the trail with distinctive blood spatter. It won’t be long, we giddily exclaim to each other. And then as if by magic the trail evaporates and stops. We scour the game trails to the left and right of this last small splash of blood. Nothing! We find evidence of other blood spatter nearby, but it’s too old (dry and crusty) to be my deer. The sun is fully risen, and still no deer to be found. Paul who has literally beaten the surrounding bushes, heads back to camp to check on our dog as I decide to head to the point of where I shot this buck and start from the “beginning”. Once at the original pool of blood, I find it still “fresh” and highly visible. My orange reflective tape markers are still in place and I follow his track easily, happily noticing that the blood is still visible after the previous night’s mini blizzard. I follow the track to a spot where it appears the buck just charged down the face of the hill over the bitter brush, but can find no obvious blood trail to the bottom, as the rain and snow must have “washed” it away. However, my green glow stick is nowhere to be found…in all the green growey stuff. (Note to self…ditch all the green glow sticks and restock with orange, red, even blue). I circle pattern search at this point and down below once more. I have taken to calling this deer, Houdini, as he has done a remarkable disappearing act. After a total of nearly 11 hours, over two days, searching for Houdini, I call it. The only possible explanation is that Houdini called for an Uber, and was picked up on the ATV trail the night prior. (There was a side-by-side that exited the ATV canyon just before Paul had left camp that evening…just saying) Highly frustrated and dejected I stomp back to camp, as it’s Paul’s turn to hunt.
The wind continues to intensify, and is relentless. Conditions for hunting couldn’t be any worse. We fight the urge to pack up and head for home, but we are optimists and still believe (just a little) that we may still bag a deer before we leave. We awake our final morning to another colorful sky. The wind is near 30 mph and constant. It has “warmed up” to 37 degrees, but with the wind chill factor, (as with everyday so far), is more like a “balmy” 5 degrees. What a treat! Paul returns quite early, having become too chilled to effectively hunt.
I head out in the evening, if only for a walk in the woods. Remarkably my route finds me “mostly” out of the wind for a time. As I climb another hill to glass for our “monster buck”, (heck, any buck) I am rewarded with a plethora of white butted rocks, antler shaped branches, and a subsiding wind. I have successfully snuck a small herd of does and if I wished, could throw a rock and hit them. As usual, I peer and wait in earnest for a “boyfriend” to appear, if not here, somewhere on the near distant hillsides.
I have a commanding view of the entire area we have been hunting. This is truly an island in the middle of a harsh and arid prairie. While we may not have secured venison for the freezer, we have been satiated with remarkable views, brilliant sunrises and sunsets, the company of good friends, and the exploration of new and unmistakably beautiful territory, that is but a small portion of southeast Wyoming. This is what hunting is all about. Communing with nature, connecting with the wonderment and perfection of God’s creations, and harvesting a tastey morsel or two…if you are lucky. And of course, like clockwork, and the irony of Mother Nature (who is a bitch, btw), the morning after the season ends, is beautiful, sunny yet cold, and more importantly absent any wind. ANY WIND! Absolute perfect deer hunting conditions. We smile and shake our heads. And just to add salt to the “wound”, I spy a couple of does making their way through the edge of our camp, as if to say, ‘Neener, Neener, Neener’. And with that we finish packing, and head home to what would be a near 100 degree temperature change.
Oh, Wy-Oh-ming, we’ll be back. That, is for sure.